• Are You Hiring a Ghostwriter or a Slave?

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Rants & Raves     Comments 8 comments

    My professional website, Buttontapper.com, contains a contact form that allows potential clients to email me with questions, queries and requests for my rates. Unfortunately, I also get all manner of tire-kickers wasting my time with emails that have clearly not been well thought out before pressing “Send.” For instance, the latest was from a chap looking for a ghostwriter, who sent me an email something like this:


    Dear Laura,

    I would like you to read my 7,000-word manuscript, which mainly consists of gobbledygook, stock dialog, flat characters, and an incomprehensible plot line, and tell me whether it will be a surefire bestseller. Based on this assessment, I will then expect you to write an entire novel, as well as mail it out to the list of agents I have included in this email. In exchange, I will pay you absolutely nothing for either your writing or editing expertise, and then bristle when you politely inform me that writing is your business, and you expect payment for it. My writing friends tell me I should never pay anything until the novel is finished, so obviously they are right and you are wrong, because why would I pay a writer to write?


    Hopelessly Clueless


    I have written about this before, and I will doubtless write about it again, but here’s the essential part of hiring a writer: you have to pay them money to get them to write something.

    I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. You pay someone to baby-sit your kids, you pay someone to do your dry cleaning, you pay someone to mow your lawn … these are all tasks you could do yourself (with the possible exception of the dry cleaning—how do you clean something without soap and water?), but you choose to pay someone else to do them instead. While I believe that writing is certainly a more difficult task than mowing the lawn, and therefore ought to command a higher salary than getting the kid next door to do it for $5, the fact remains that you would never expect to have anyone provide these valuable, timely services to you for free. Right?

    Now, in the case of Hopelessly Clueless, I believe the problem actually lies in the misconceptions about what constitutes ghostwriting, and what kinds of services the ghostwriter performs. For instance, HC wanted me to write a book for him for free because his “writer friends” had told him never to pay any money during the publishing process. Which is totally legit advice, except for the fact that HC doesn’t seem to understand that hiring a ghostwriter is NOT a normal part of the publishing process.

    You see, the typical track to publishing a book involves you, the writer, sitting down and writing a book. Upon completion of said book, you shop around for an agent. Once you find an agent willing to read your manuscript, you send it to them and they read it (for free!), and let you know whether they want to represent you or not. If the agent likes your book and chooses to represent you, the two of you will sign a contract that lays out the fees the agent will take upon the sale of your book. So if you have a so-called agent telling you that you need to pay them to read your work, you actually have a scammer on the line, and should run like the wind.

    The ghostwriting track to publication, however, is much different. Instead of a book that YOU have written, you are actually hiring a writer to do the writing for you. That’s where I come into the equation. I’m the writer, and therefore you need to pay me for my work, because that’s what you’re hiring me to do. It’s a job—my job. If you balk at this fact, you are not looking for a ghostwriter at all, you are looking for a slave.

    Hear me now, believe me later: I don’t do windows, I don’t lick boots, and I don’t write for free, period.

    If you do have money to spend on hiring a writer, then by all means contact one to ask how much they would charge for your project. Keep in mind that ghostwriting doesn’t come cheap, despite what you may have surmised from online hiring services like oDesk. Typical figures for professional writers, as presented in Kelly James-Enger’s 2010 ghostwriting book Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks, are $5,000 to $10,000 for a book proposal alone; $10,000 to $50,000 (and up) for a book of 50,000 to 75,000 words; and editing/rewriting at a rate of $50 to $100 per hour.

    Don’t be hopelessly clueless. If you’re really and truly looking for a ghostwriter, come with cash in hand—or better yet, a blank check. Come to the table prepared to talk about money in a business-like manner, and the whole transaction will run much more smoothly.

    If, on the other hand, you are just looking for writing coaching or someone to provide editing for a manuscript, check out WriteByNight’s services and order à la carte. It’s much cheaper than hiring a ghostwriter to do it all for you (services start at just $35/hour), and in the end it will be much more valuable to know that you wrote it yourself.



    Laura Roberts is the editor of the rebellious literary magazine Black Heart, and a writing coach & manuscript consultant at WriteByNight. You can follow her on Twitter @originaloflaura, or check out her personal website.

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    David Duhr

    I get the sense people like this think a writer can just knock out a novel in a day. ” I’m giving you the plot and characters; all you have to do is sit down and write it. How hard can it be?”

    I’d like to know how HC bristled when you told him you don’t work for free. I imagine his reaction was amusing. Or is that for another post?

    Laura Roberts

    Agreed. I guess these people have never actually tried to write anything themselves, otherwise they’d be a bit more realistic about the scale of the work involved. HC basically told me that his “writer friends” told him not to lay down any cash until the book was complete (I shrunk down our correspondence to one overview email), which blew my mind. Why would you approach someone for a service they perform for a living, and then turn around and tell them you won’t pay for that service? In a follow-up email, he admitted he didn’t know the difference between an… Read more »


    I think a lot of people make the assumption that “creative” equals “fun,” and that “fun” equals “so awesome to do that it doesn’t require payment.” I used to work with a woman who believed the first part of that assumption. She told everyone in the office how “creative” she was and how she just loved being “creative,” but what she really meant was that she only liked working on fun projects, and that she constantly missed deadlines on her actual work (when she wasn’t avoiding it). Creative means to create, to make something out of nothing. And if you… Read more »


    I was similarly ‘seduced’ by some guy who said that he had a tell-all story about a celebrity and that he’d pay me when the book was finished. Naturally, it was going to make us both millionaires. Of course that was the end of our beautiful relationship, but my biggest mistake was in having replied to his ad on the dreaded Craigslist in the first place. I sometimes wonder whether Craigslist doesn’t exist to show us writers just how clueless and/or unscrupulous potential clients can be.

    Thanks for another amusing and practical post.


    Another contributing factor to the false assumption that writing is easy is that good writing feels easy. A flawless sentence makes you forget that it was constructed by human hands. It reads natural, as if it existed somewhere overhead and all the writer had to do was pluck it down. Of course, in reality, it’s the best writing that requires the most effort.

    David Kassin Fried

    This is one of the toughest things I’m dealing with right now – at least 9/10 people who contact me do not have the money to pay me for what I do. I rarely get people who expect anything for free, and I’m happy to answer questions. But I’m currently looking for ways to build the quality of my prospects.

    Laura Roberts

    I hear you. On the plus side, you’ve got people who know they need to spend money, but it sounds like they don’t realize just how much they’ll need to spend for quality services. Perhaps you can give them some general estimates of your fees on your website, so they’ll have a rough idea coming into the discussion? That way they might be able to budget for it, rather than simply walking away.

    […] Are You Hiring a Ghostwriter or a Slave?: Laura Roberts rants about people who want writers to work for free. […]

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